Patrik Wincent is a registered therapist, coach, author and public speaker with years of experience treating people whose mobile phone use has turned into addiction. Here he shares what he’s learned about better phone and screen use at home.

What are the warning signs that screen time and phone use has gone too far?
Patrick has identified a handful of behaviours. If you recognise one of these, or more than one, it might be time to rethink your screen usage.

The secret surfer
Secret surfers know that their phone use is over the top and people around them complain and comment about it. But instead of cutting it down, secret surfers try to hide it. They’ll sneak into the toilet or hide so no-one else sees how stuck to their phones they are.

That said, combining a trip to the loo with checking your phone doesn’t have to be alarming, though it might seem a bit odd. It’s doing it in secret that should trigger your inner warning bell.

The phone snuggler
Little children have comfort blankets to snuggle up with in bed. Phone snugglers have their phones. The last thing they do before going to sleep is check their phone. And you can guess what the first thing they do in the morning is. After turning off the alarm. On their phone.

The zombie
People are walking, but they’re not out for a relaxing stroll. All their attention is on their screen not on their surroundings and their feet are on automatic pilot.

The multitasker
Having eyes in the back of your head is a strength if you’re a sportsperson. Or a parent. But keeping track of too many things at once, otherwise known as “multitasking”, is otherwise a rubbish idea. Here we’re talking about people who are physically present at a meeting or a family meal but who automatically respond to beeps and flashing from their mobile phone so their focus isn’t properly on either.

The false alarm
I think that’s my phone vibrating. Best check. No, I was just imagining it… Feel familiar? Does that mean you’re at risk of mobile phone addiction? It’s hard to say but it does mean you spend so much time on your phone that you’ve got a bit delusional about it.

How do we get into bad mobile phone habits?
To an extent it’s a purely chemical dependency. When we experience a positive surprise, it triggers the secretion of the feel-good hormone dopamine. This happens every time our phones beep and we check them and see pictures from friends or entertaining videos. We want more dopamine.

And humans have a fundamental need to keep track of their immediate and wider surroundings. These days we’ve got a handy little tool that lets us do that, any time of the day or night. It’s no surprise that we love using it.

How is it harmful?
The other side of the coin is that our phones also have the ability to deliver a stream of negative surprises and reminders of things we associate with anxiety and discomfort. Mobile phones mean you never get a break from a tough situation at work, a difficult boss or relationship problems. This increases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in the body. If these remain high over a long period, it can lead to chronic symptoms of stress.

The rapid scrolling society that many people live in also results in us engaging our long-term memory less and less. Where we used to think about things, these days we Google instead.

Throughout history, humans have shown themselves to be innovative and imaginative. But this demands focus and peace and quiet, which more of us are finding it harder to find when we’re constantly interrupted by our phones.

When mobile use starts to become addiction is a highly individual matter. If you associate frequent mobile phone use with depression, anxiety and stress, or it is starting to have a negative impact on your job or your relationships, it’s a problem you need to tackle. There is professional help available if you need it. Look for a therapist who works with mobile phone addiction.

How can you stop phone use that has gone too far?
Like other kinds of addiction, the first step is realising you’ve got a problem. Some people recognise it themselves, sometimes as a result of a traumatic trigger incident. Others, who might be stuck in overdrive, might need external help to map their behaviour and understand which aspects need to change.

As Patrik Wincent sees it, the key to succeeding in changing behaviour is to start small and to be patient. You can see every little change as an experiment that you evaluate before adding the next. The first step might be reading a book before going to sleep instead of checking your phone. The next step might be making your bedroom a mobile-free zone for a month. Add one change at a time. If you can be harder on yourself than that, that’s great, but you’ve got to be able to sustain it.

Patrik’s five tips for better phone habits at home:

Make meals a phone-free zone
Even if your phone rings, you’re not allowed to answer it until after the meal. Spend mealtimes talking about your day or what’s planned for tomorrow. All children and adults are better for it and if you put your own phone away, you’re setting a good example.
One thing at a time
Research shows that we now activate our short-term memory instead of our long-term memory because of multitasking, resulting in difficulties concentrating and problems with learning. Reduce the muddle in your life by reintroducing the old rule of doing one thing at a time and doing it well.
Wind down two hours before bedtime
One reason for this is that the blue light from screens gives us unwanted energising light therapy. The other is that the never-ending flow of new impressions stimulates dopamine, which keeps us awake.
Practise being bored
Allow yourself to simply be bored, however boring that is, without doing anything about it. Today we are bombarded with so much information from the outside in, but unleashing our creativity and imagination, from the inside out, takes patience.
Be in the moment
Put down your phone when you’re spending time with the kids in the park, at coaching sessions or matches. That like or article can wait for an hour.

Products linked to the article:

Alarm clock
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Wireless headset
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